We’ve all been there: things are going well at work, and then out of nowhere, you find yourself in the fast-sinking quicksand of an awkward situation.
Unlike certain HR issues (discrimination, breaches in confidentiality, etc.) there’s no playbook for TMI IRL, or for how to navigate tough situations in the workplace when they pop up out of nowhere.
Here are some pointers for how to escape these seven tricky work situations:
1. The Gossipy Conversation You Want No Part Of
Got a coworker who loves to gossip? It’s all too easy to find yourself in a conversation you’d rather moonwalk right out of, but getting it out of it gracefully can be a delicate process. Beyond faking a stomachache, there’s always the upfront approach. Something like, “I love talking with you, but I’m trying to change my attitude about work and keep things positive. Mind if we talk about something else?” At best, they’ll respect your resolution and want to do the same. At worst, they’ll feel awkward and stop talking smack.
Got a coworker who loves to gossip? When you can't moonwalk on out of there, try the direct approach.
2. The “Process” Conversation That Feels Totally Hopeless
Ever found yourself at the conference table with your bosses asking for guidance that’s way above your pay grade? From time to time, you might find yourself in a conversation with your manager that feels a little above your head. Fight the urge to shut down, and look at the situation as an opportunity to talk through things with them and offer your two cents. Odds are, they wouldn’t have asked you if they didn’t value your opinion. Recognize that at the end of the day, it’s their problem to handle, but that you have valuable insight that can help them get to a solution faster. Be judicious in how you offer it, and stay humble with your suggestions, but don’t be afraid to share your opinion if they’re asking for it.
3. The Cubicle Mate With the Strange Habits
Nobody ever said you’d get along with each and every one of your coworkers, but especially in tight spaces or an open office environment, personal space is key. If the coworker you share a space with is driving you crazy with their weird habits or incessant chatter, ask their manager to say something to them if you aren’t comfortable doing so. If you don’t mind speaking up, try phrasing the conversation like, “It’s a little hard for me to focus when there’s music playing. Mind putting in some headphones?” If that’s not working either, seek out quiet spaces to work on your terms throughout the day.
4. The Promotion You Didn’t Want
Face it: sometimes, added responsibility just isn’t what you’re looking for. Whether you’re looking to move on to a new company or just aren’t interested in pursuing management, thank your boss for their vote of confidence, but explain that you’d be happier staying in your current role — at least for the time being. Feel free to be honest, too; if your hesitance is based on not feeling ready, politely explain that you’d like a bit more time before moving up a work level, and ask if you can pick the conversation up again in six months.
5. The Added Workload With No Added Compensation Offer
On the flip side, if your boss is layering on more responsibilities, but isn’t coughing up the compensation to support it, speak up for yourself. Try something like, “I’m so glad you think I’m the right person for this role — it definitely sounds like a big responsibility, and I’m ready for the challenge. I think we should look at my compensation package in light of these new responsibilities. When’s a good time to look over things together?” This language works well because it doesn’t make excuses for or understate the transactional nature of your relationship: they’re asking for more work, and you’re asking for more compensation. It’s an equal trade, and should be treated as such.
6. The Coworker Who Wants to Be a Little Too Close
I’m all for knowing your coworkers on a personal level, but boundaries are your best friend in a close, casual workplace. If you’d rather spend time in group hangouts than one-on-one, the next time your work BFF invites you to dinner, explain that you’re trying to save weeknights for your side hustle/family/work-out challenge/whatever, and suggest the two of you organize a company-wide lunch hour for Friday instead.
7. The “It’s on Hold” Conversation
One of the trickiest work situations to navigate, there’s nothing tougher than trying to get a straight answer out of a murky, nebulous conversation. If your boss tells you your project, promotion, or relocation is on hold, keep your cool, but ask for a timeline for when things will resume. If they say they aren’t sure, let them know that you understand, and that you’ll follow up in a week to see if they have a better idea. And most importantly, get clarity on how this affects the work you do in the meantime — odds are, you’ve already been logging hours on the new initiative. See if they’re expecting all that progress to pause too, or if they’re still expecting to see the same progress at your next checkpoint. Expectations are key in this situation, so be sure to advocate for yourself so you don’t wind up behind the curve.
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